21 Feb

As the end of half-term creeps perilously close, and the stress levels of students across the U.K. begin to crank up a notch or two, there is one particular burning question on the lips of many parents: how long should they be revising for? It's an awkward question to answer because no two students are the same and what's ideal for one may not work for another, but the response I give is merely a suggestion and is frequently met with shock and horror. So before I give it, hear me out.

Many teachers, researchers and experts in their field believe the human brain works best in short bursts of concentration - figures of twenty or thirty minutes are often thrown around. Twenty or thirty minutes doesn't sound too bad, does it? In fact, some would argue, that's an incredibly manageable slot of revision to slip into your day. Right? Yes, without a doubt. But - and there's always a big, old but - in my opinion, that’s really bad advice to keep reciting this close to final exams. Why? Well, I've got two main concerns that I want to raise. 

Firstly, when people hear the mention of 'twenty to thirty minutes revision', they sometimes assume that's the total to aim for per day (eek!). Students have frequently tried to persuade me that their brains switch off after that. Really? Like, really truly? I'm pretty sure humans would have become extinct by now if that was the case. But we're still here, rocking and rolling, taking exams, so we must have the potential for a greater attention span than twenty to thirty minutes. Granted, when given a list of jobs to do around the house, my husband's attention span flies south pretty damn quickly, but most of us can surely muster up a bit more motivation and focus when it comes to studying. After all, it's one of the biggest contributors to academic success and achievement, and a first step on a career path. 

It's pretty standard for students being school educated to take nine or ten GCSE subjects in the exam series in their final year, and for them to have little choice about it. There will be exceptions to this, but many will leave with multiple qualifications, and I'm primarily directing this post to these students. Not all of the subjects will be loaded with content and have external exams in the summer, but subjects taken from the likes of English Literature, English Language, Maths, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, History, Geography, French, Spanish, etc. tend to be pretty meaty. Be completely honest, is it possible to thoroughly revise for a hefty combination of subjects with just thirty minutes revision per night? Is it even possible to thoroughly revise for all of these subjects with one hour revision per night? I should cocoa! These exams are not going to pass themselves, and they're one of the most important commitments anyone can give to their future. 

My second concern with the 'twenty to thirty minutes' mantra centres around the duration of some of the exam papers that students will sit. The Eduqas exam board sets a two and a half hour exam for one of its GCSE English Literature papers. Two and a half hours! And AQA isn’t much kinder with their English Literature because students will be sitting a paper that’s two and a quarter hours long. So how on earth can bouts of twenty to thirty minutes revision prepare learners for that level of concentration? That's like SAS stealth commando level, right? You see, effective revision has many functions. It’s obviously designed to help us absorb, store, make sense of material and be able to recite it, but it also helps us to focus and concentrate in preparation for those pesky exams. Now I’m not against short blocks of revision to start off with (please, don't get me wrong), but in an ideal world that would be in year 9 or 10. Yes, in year ten it's a flipping marvellous idea to be topping up learning with little blasts of revision here and there to keep content fresh in our heads. But (here's that 'but' again) in the final year that has to be built up, and quickly. Why? Because how many exams will we ever sit that last only twenty to thirty minutes? Very few, if any. And the reality is that learners have to be fully equipped and able to focus for their longest exam without a break. If that turns out to be a two and a half hour paper, then so be it. 

How can students achieve this? It sounds like a crazy amount of time to be revising in one go without a break, after all. Well, I don't want anyone making themselves ill trying to hit this target, so if it's genuinely not possible for a student to do this, then don't. It's that simple. Mental health is more important, without a doubt, and there are plenty of things that can get in the way of goals. There is no shame in that. None, whatsoever. However, intelligence may be a bit like an elastic band: some of us are born with small bands and work hard to stretch them over and over again, and some of us are born with the 'luxury' of bigger bands. No matter what, we can all push ourselves to stretch that little bit further, to reach our potential. With this goal in mind, students approaching final exams need to view study as their job or occupation for the next few months. That's right, they need to work, work, work to hit their targets. It's not a ridiculous suggestion because attention and memory are both cognitive skills that can be improved and stretched with practice, and for many students who do not have additional needs, working towards a goal like this is entirely possible. However, here's the sticking point: revision takes commitment and many teenagers aren't equipped for it like we - the older, greyer, more wrinkly generation - were back in the day! Harsh? No, far from it. I'm not throwing an insult at students here; I'm actually trying to empathise with their plight and work out why productive and worthwhile study is such an alien concept to many - not all, but a fair few (thousand!).

Modern teenagers are, rightly so, a product of their very modern environment. They’ve been raised with technology in their hands and kids' TV shows that have ad breaks every eight minutes, flit about in all directions, have little plot or narrative, shout loudly at the viewer and are a kaleidoscope of vomit-inducing colours, so it's no wonder the majority of teens today need constant stimulation. It's actually not their fault; it really isn't. They have different hurdles to jump than my generation - who were never faced with the same distractions students nowadays have - and, sadly, I think these distractions have not allowed their imaginations to soar freely. A real shame of the modern world is that it doesn't grant teens the beauty of boredom and silence, and it inhibits their chances of experiencing the sheer delight that comes with being able to focus on something of academic importance and solve it by themselves. Why would they when they have search engines at their fingertips or Instagram, Snapchat, an Xbox or PS4 for company? They can even swipe away something that doesn't appeal. If only I could have done that to my Chemistry homework! 

Yet it’s never too late to show them how to step back in time and feel passion for a book or the thrill of solving a problem in Maths. It's never too late to trigger a thirst for study. We, as educators or parents, should never hear the words ‘I've left it too late, so what’s the point?’ muttered. In my experience, when a student is saying that, they are, more often than not, petrified about failing, and, given the choice, they would rather fail because they didn’t try than fail because they worked hard and weren’t ‘good enough’ - it all comes down to saving face. It's easier to deny the need for revision, belittle friends that choose it and start to play up or give attitude when parents 'nag' than have to start from scratch and work through a pile of notes, right? But remember, they're scared, not stupid. They know how important their exams are, and they just need a bit of help and someone to listen to their worries. They need a plan of action, something that pushes them in the right direction and gives them permission to start revising now, today, this very second, because it can make all the difference. 

So how should a student approach their revision? Students should actually be revising in silence. Research has proven that we need to match the learning and test conditions, so studying with a TV on or music playing will never mirror the exam hall where you can hear a pin drop. If students don't get used to learning in silence, they may struggle to test in complete silence (it can be daunting). As far as revision techniques go, I'll cover tried and tested methods in another post, but students should treat revision days just like a working day, with the end payment being a bunch of fab grades as opposed to a wad of cash. This could mean having to block off a window of eight to twelve hours per day - has your jaw just hit the floor? If so, let me try to explain why this figure is not as overwhelming as it sounds. For a student who starts school at 8.30 on a morning - remember, this post is aimed at school educated students - they should be knocking off their revision for some well-deserved chill time between 4.30-8.30 at night (it's dependent on their individual needs/abilities, of course). This means that after school, they'll probably be able to fit in a good couple of hours, and on a weekend their time will be opened up purely for homework and revision if need be. What? Eight to twelve hours per day on a weekend sounds a lot, doesn't it? No, it shouldn't ever need to get to the stage of cramming and eight to twelve hours of revision per day if you plan in advance. That eight to twelve hours is simply opening up or blocking off a window for revision. This means don't make any plans to meet friends, play on technology, etc, inside those hours (e.g. 10-4 or 10-6), and, instead, do several blocks of revision. There must be breaks taken during this time and meals factored in, too, so it works out nowhere near eight to twelve hours per day. For instance, I'd recommend a mini break at least every two hours for a typical year eleven or year thirteen student (maybe a break of fifteen to twenty minutes at a time) and some will probably need to be longer where you move out of your study room, go for a walk, talk to family, keep the brain ticking over in a different way. And if you're following this kind of 'tight' schedule, it's not a bad idea to take a day or two off from studying every week, too, because it's important not to experience burnout along the way - if that happens, all the good work can quickly go down the pan! 

This post is nearly finished, but, listen, if you're a parent reading this, your son or daughter probably does need to be revising in order to succeed, but they have to be the one to take ownership of their study and subsequent grades. You can't do it for them. Neither can I. But we can support them through the process as much as we possibly can. And if you're a student reading this who hasn't yet started revising for your final exams, your mind will go into shock and become saturated too quickly if your throw yourself into the eight to twelve hour 'working day window' schedule I've outlined above. What you need to do is start with those manageable twenty or thirty minute slots today (as in right now, don't delay) and increase your revision periods as each day or week passes. Your working day of studying may only be two or three hours this week, but think what it could be like in two months' time. Think about the day when you walk into school or college and open up that sacred envelope with those results inside and know that you - yes, you - made that happen. You made the right decision and gave yourself the best possible chance of success. Start now with small chunks and aim to increase your commitment to your studies. Go on, do it. Building up this way, gives your brain time to adjust to the duration and testing conditions you're going to be putting it under, and before you know it, you'll be feeling so much more confident for those exams. 

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